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The manager's guide to evaluating employee training

Sending employees to IT industry conferences or computing training programs costs time and money. How can you measure the ROI and determine the value of their participation?

One of your employees comes to you for approval to attend a conference or training event. You sign off on the travel plans, clear the purchase order for the registration fee, and block out the time the employee will be away from the office. But are you going to get your money’s worth for the investment?

Somewhere in the world, an industry conference or training class relevant to your business is being held this week. And it's likely there was one last week and another is scheduled for next week. You have plenty of opportunities to send your employees off to such events, but the bigger question is whether it is worth the cost to send them.

I’m not speaking here of your willingness to train people and send them to industry conferences. I assume you agree with Richard Branson’s advice: “Train people well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so they don't want to.” Rather, this is a question of making the right investment given the options and judging how wisely the money is spent—just as you do when it comes to purchasing cloud services or deciding if the business should hire someone to specialize in corporate ethics. The financial investment can add up quickly, and in many cases, the registration fee is the least of all the related expenses. A simple conference can become a significant and expensive disruption, and there’s no guarantee you’ll realize a return on your investment. 

I can’t help you judge the relative value of two competing courses, but I can offer suggestions on how to measure the results.

Getting your money’s worth

One way to measure the gains from the time away from the office is to actively test for new skills and knowledge. Some courses are preparation for industry certification exams; the employee’s test results serve as a clear indication of achievement.

However, not all conferences or training events lend themselves to a straight-up testing evaluation. For example, how do you test for gains in leadership skills? The subjective gains are difficult to measure directly.

Morale is a factor as well. Sending employees to a conference is a signal that you value them enough to invest in their professional growth. Conference attendance can also be seen as a reward for valued contributions to the company’s goals. According to a Society for Human Resource Management report, more than half of the HR professionals surveyed said an employee recognition program positively affects retention (68 percent) and recruitment (56 percent).

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Alternate success metrics

All this is well and good, but how do you know if your investment is worth it? Do you really need to measure the return of subjective gains to know you received value? After all, you don’t need to count the raindrops to know you’re getting wet.

As it turns out, there are many ways you can assess the real value of sending a given employee to a given event. Companies use a variety of quantitative and qualitative measures to determine this.

By the numbers: For the bean counters, quantitative measures carry the most weight. Even if the event does not lend itself to a test or other skill assessment, sometimes you can track progress toward goals objectively. For example, sales departments’ classic measures include tracking new contacts made and the rates of converting those contacts into customers. This may also be applicable for non-sales staff. For instance, the employee who attends a conference may have the opportunity for a one-on-one with a well-known presenter or market analyst; that conversation could be as valuable as consulting time spent with the expert.

Change in project velocity: Some companies are creative in developing metrics. If the employees involved in an event are part of programming or other product development teams, you can measure the speed of progress for different projects, says Ian McClarty, CEO of PhoenixNAP Global IT Solutions. McClarty compares the results for teams wherein a member attended an event to those without someone who attended. (In agile terms, you can measure the projects’ velocity.) Presumably, a team that receives training is more productive than one left to figure things out on its own.

Number of certifications: Quantified benefits show up in unexpected places. For example, when determining a partner’s tier level, some technology vendors factor in the number of employees with specific certifications. The tier level may lead to better discounts or free product licenses, which can have a direct impact on your company’s bottom line.

Employee retention rates: Another quantifiable benefit can take time to develop yet indicate significant yields. According to the Center for American Progress, retention rates have a huge impact on personnel costs. Replacing an employee can cost half of that person’s salary. For a programmer earning $90,000 a year, this amounts to $45,000 in direct and indirect costs. As mentioned earlier, employees can feel rewarded when sent to a conference, which contributes to engagement, productivity, and company loyalty. Tracking retention data for employees who attend conferences and training events compared with those who do not get those opportunities could reveal an enormous ROI for those expenses. (If your HR department is involved in setting up training or conference attendance, it may already have collected that data; ask HR staff to evaluate it.)

Many happy returns

Sometimes you can judge whether employees learned anything by their ability to impart the knowledge to others. For example, when they return from conferences or training programs, arrange for employees to do a “show and tell.” At McClarty’s company, all employees who attend a conference or other event are expected to conduct training sessions based on their new knowledge. In addition to helping other employees learn new skills and insights, this practice also helps with leadership development.

Employees participating in conferences can also provide qualitative benefits for the company by generating content. One of the prime examples is for employees to post commentary on social media channels such as Twitter or LinkedIn during the event to document its highlights. This can increase both the employee’s and the company's visibility in the industry and lead to increased engagement with customers and suppliers, as well as with your company’s employees.

Prepare for success

Evaluating the ROI for an employee’s participation in a conference or training program does not happen by accident. You need to plan for it and put the mechanisms in place that let you gather and analyze the data you need. It is much more difficult to perform an ROI analysis without such preparation.

One important step in this process is to make sure employees understand the expectations. For example, you might go over the conference program to agree on specific sessions to attend. If you expect them to conduct training sessions for colleagues on their return, be sure they understand the scope and timing of those events. 

Make lists of specific customers or suppliers you want the employee to contact at the event so you can measure success in making those connections. If you are interested in new contacts, explain how to qualify the contacts and what information you might need beyond just a stack of business cards.

With a little planning and preparation, you can come up with valid and useful ways to evaluate an employee’s attendance at a conference or training program. This information will help you make plans for employee participation in events in the future.

Training ROI: Lessons for leaders

  • The easiest way to judge training ROI is an exam, such as with certification testing. But you should look for other quantitative and qualitative measures to assess the value of a training investment.
  • One example: Ask employees to give a “lunch and learn” after the event. Doing so helps them set the information in their head and disseminate the knowledge widely, and improves the employees' visibility.
  • Planning and preparation are essential if you are to get the most from investments in employee participation in outside events.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.